I've heard the word strealish (or streelish) used to describe someone with a lost or wan look or someone unkempt or untidy.
I know it's an Irishism, but what is the origin of the word and what did it originally mean?
The OED says a streel or sthreel is an untidy woman or a slut.
I await with interest the male equivalent: or are all Irishmen impeccably turned out?
As Tim quotes from the OED, the English word st(h)reel is borrowed from Irish. The OED’s note on the Irish word, however, is somewhat lacking: there is, in fact, an entire conglomeration of words (and their variants, of which there are many!) in Irish that are closely connected, and it’s not entirely certain which, if any, particular one is the direct source of the English words.
The basics: loose-hanging rags and untidy whips
The basis of this knot of words is a root s[t]r-(g)-l, which indicates some kind of thread- or rope-like object hanging loose, as well as the action of hanging loose or dangling. (Note: initial sr- and str- are frequently mixed up and confused in Irish. Sr- is the more common, especially in the Official Standard language, but both are found, and many words have variants with both.)
This basic notion has several abstract connotations, the most common of which is a unkemptness, as of loose rags hanging untidily off someone’s back, and whipping (since a whip is sort of a loose-hanging strip of leather until you start actually using it).
The most basic instance of this in a nominal sense is probably sraoille:
– and sroigheall:
In the verbal sense, we have sraoill:
– where it is clear that sense (1) is based on sraoille and sense (2) on sroigheall. The variations in the spelling of the verb (which, despite their very different appearances, are pronounced almost identically) are clearly the result of a confusion between the two nouns.
Importantly, however, as the example sentence mentioning a priest shows, there is no inherent notion in the root that it only applies to women, as the OED entry would appear to imply.
There aren’t any clear derivations from sroigheall, but sraoille is the source of quite a few very similar words with similar but distinct meanings, based generally on sense (2) and denoting slovenliness or untidiness:
As you can see, the only place women are singled out is in sraoilleog, but that is logical enough, since that word is formed by adding the feminising suffix -óg/-eog suffix; sraoilleán, on the other hand, would more likely refer to a man, since -án is generally a masculinising suffix.
Straille: an untidy wench?
Apart from all these words, there is also the second word mentioned by the OED, straille, translated as “wench or untidy”. Let me first say that that is not a good translation; it’s quite misleading, in fact, and even Dinneen’s entry is somewhat misleading.
Straille is from the same root as the other words, and a large portion of the meaning overlaps; but straille has a different basic meaning:
Like its cognate sraoille, straille refers primarily to untidiness, and despite Dinneen’s translation, it is not limited to referring to “wenches”—as the very first example also shows. Straille fir is simply a ‘mess of a man’, just like straille mná is a ‘mess of a woman’.
There’s also stráille, which again is very close:
Again, no gender is singled out here, and stráille fir works just as well as stráille mná.
So what is the origin of this rather bewildering mess of similar words?
Well, it would appear—though I can’t find any specific sources to corroborate—that it’s an Old and Middle Irish conflation of two words, borrowed from Vulgar Latin probably already in Common Insular Celtic or pre-Irish: strāgulum and flagellum.
Strāgulum in Latin is a bedspread, sheet, mattress, rug, or similar. It is basically some type of textile or fabric-like thing that is somehow stretched out, and it derives from the verb sternō ‘spread, stretch out’, from the Indo-European root *sterh₃-, a root with many, many cognates.
Flagellum in Latin is (not too hard to figure out) a whip.
It seems, based on Irish sroigheall and Old Welsh ffrowyll ‘whip’ (which is possibly borrowed from Irish), that the latter of these two was borrowed as *fragellum instead of flagellum (a simple case of dissimilation that is also found elsewhere in Vulgar Latin). Pre-Irish at this stage did not have /f/ and seems sometimes to have substituted native /sʷ/ instead, which later merged with /s/, so the development is something like VL fl- > VL fr- > pI sʷr- > OI sr-. Since Old Irish conflated sr- and str- even more than Modern Irish does, strāgulum would almost certainly end up with an initial sr- as well.
Applying a few well-established sound changes in the early history of the Irish language, these two originally quite different words would regularly turn up as something like *sragil and *srāgel, and you can see how the Irish would start to get them mixed up, especially once the /ɡ/ in the middle there became /ɣʲ/ and later just /j/ (you’d basically end up with /sɾaɪiɫ/ vs. /sɾaːil/ or something like that in Middle Irish).
Once that happened, the secondary meaning of ‘slovenly, unkempt, untidy’ that had originally been associated with dangling strips (= the whip) was applied in more or less equal measure to the erstwhile bedspread-sheet-rug-mattress-thingy.
So by way of conclusion to this enormous rambling, the untidy and unkempt sense of streelish derives originally from the image of loose-hanging strips (originally those on a whip) dangling randomly like rags or locks of unkempt hair on an untidy person.
The definitions and example sentences quoted in this answer are all based Rev. Patrick Dinneen’s Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla (1927). I have kept its original, pre-Caighdeán spelling (though with the cló transliterated and lenition indicated by h as in the current Latin-based orthography), but I have structured them and weeded out irrelevant bits to fit the answer.